Realizing an impossible dream

By Gus Bode

Last year, on a frigid February evening, I met a tiny old woman. She swiped her metro card on the turnstile at 157th Street station, wobbled her way past unyielding passengers, stepped into the southbound No. 1 train and sat across from my seat.

Once she found her weight in the new world around her, she took off her flowery black Sunday church hat and surveyed the subway car. She had thick black hair, a small mole on her chin and damp black eyes. The rough hands of history had drawn creases on her temples, shrunk her eyes, cringed her comport and paled her petite lips. The back of her hands had eroded, and what remained were her sturdy knuckles and puffy veins.

Those hands didn’t wear out answering phone calls at the front desk of a local library or a museum. They seemed timeless, like sand on the ocean shore.


The train, meanwhile, unloaded passengers and loaded new ones at the 137th Street City College station. She noticed the image of a black man on the cover of a book I was reading.’ She leaned forward, pressed her palms against her knees and gazed at the picture with stories in her eyes.

‘Dreams of My Father, his memoir,’ I said.

She didn’t respond.

‘He wrote it himself.’

She smiled, but didn’t say anything.’ I wasn’t sure she could hear me.’ I went and sat next to her.’

She had moved from Louisiana to New York City in the early seventies with $16 in change and two young boys. She said she had worked 31 years for a landlord who owned a townhouse on the Upper West Side, sweeping wooden floors, mopping three flights of stairs, painting walls and renewing the apartments for new tenants. Taking occasional naps under the staircase on cold winter afternoons, she had toiled hard to keep the place new for 31 years.

‘My boys don’t even come and see me no more,’ she explained voluntarily.’


I felt the force of the giant motorcade whistling through the tunnel, casting flickering light on the dark walls behind us. The wheels under us, it seemed, were hitting the tracks louder than before.

I was given a brief, yet intimate window into her life. I knew more about her than I deserve, I felt uneasy. I retreated back to my reading.

A few moments later, as her station neared, she put her hat back on, summoned her belongings and wobbled back up on her feet.

‘Do you think he’ll win?” I asked, waving the book in the air.

‘ ‘A black man ain’t becoming president,’ she replied, bobbing her head. When the train stopped and doors slid back open, she stepped onto the platform at 96th Street station and walked away.

As the train screamed past the station, I sat next to the empty warm seat and thought about her. How many plates does she arrange at the dinner table every night? What conversations slither from her broken bread? Does she knit a sweater for someone in the months leading up to winter? How do her prayers sound? Do the old backyards still have the footprints of her childhood?

I again thought about her for a moment this Inauguration Day.’

Bharthapudi is a doctoral student in radio-television.